Prescott and Russell mayors have decided to scrub the hub.

After spending $282,912 since 2018 to plan, organize, and study the feasibility of developing a federally-inspected food hub that would slaughter, process, and distribute locally raised and grown food to the national market, the United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) council voted unanimously on March 22 to discontinue the initiative.

Planning for the Eastern Ontario Food Hub project began in 2018 and was officially announced in spring 2020. If completed, it would have cost $36.4 million.

Report reveals reasons

According to a report presented to council by Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Stéphane Parisien, the feasibility analysis and business plan development process found several disadvantages. Those include an uncertainty about the availability of sufficient quantities of fresh, packaged, and processed produce across the UCPR’s territory to meet current market demand, a lack of a complete overview of the network of potential buyers in the UCPR and their interest in a regional food hub, a limited market in the UCPR due to a large area with a low population concentration, several agricultural food products are available in the UCPR with little market distinctiveness, and farms and agri-food processors already use their own marketing networks.

The feasibility analysis and business plan development process also found infrastructure challenges exist across the UCPR for the development of a regional food hub. The amount of water required by a food processing plant exceeds the capacity available in several municipalities and would create a disadvantage for other residential, commercial, and industrial development. Likewise, there are also concerns about the amount of wastewater which would be created and the capacity to properly treat it.

The report presented to UCPR council explains that because the food hub would have been administered by a regional government, it created significant business risk because no municipal government had attempted such a business model before and no set of best practices for a public sector operation of a food processing facility exist.

Difficulty was also encountered in selecting an appropriate site for the food hub facility. The report explains there were challenges finding a property with adequate sources of electricity, natural gas, and a proper connection to the road network.

According to Parisien’s report, all expenditures on the food hub project to date were within the amounts allocated in the UCPR budgets each year from 2018 to 2021. The financial plan for the construction and operation of the food hub had proposed an investment of $2.5 million from the UCPR, revenue of $19.7 million from private investment, $12 million in provincial and federal grants, and $2.2 million from special project partners for a total of $36.4 million. None of the financial commitments had been secured by the UCPR.

Parisien said the food hub project could be revived at some point, but it is unlikely it will happen under the UCPR’s direction.

 “That’s not to say someone won’t pick it up in the future, but for now, we don’t think we’re the lead on this,” he told council.

The UCPR will retain the feasibility analysis and business plan information and will share it with any future party which may be interested in developing a food hub in the future.